Soreness After Long Runs: Is It My Diet?

Q  I am a petite (45kg, 152cm) female vegetarian, new to running. I’m following a four-week training plan for a 15K next month, but I have issues with longer runs (over 12km). My leg muscles feel sore and stiff for days, and walking up and down stairs is especially painful. I’ve tried taking a week off, but the pain returns after I finish another long run. I’m using an app to track my kilojoules and have found that it’s hard for me to meet the suggested intake of 6280 kilojoules. I’m meeting my protein requirement (60-70g suggested daily) but am usually low on iron and carbs. I also take a multivitamin and B12 supplement. Do you have any suggestions? – LAURA


A  Thanks for your question because it is a very important one. One of the most valuable gifts running offers us is being in touch with our bodies. We learn to recognise quickly when things aren’t quite right, and therefore we can seek help sooner than an inactive person might. I encourage you to follow your instincts and visit your health care professional to discuss your symptoms and concerns because, based on your description, it sounds as if this is beyond the range of normal muscle soreness that may follow a long run. You should be checked out thoroughly to rule out any underlying medical conditions and determine if additional diagnostic tests or lab work are needed. If your diet is suspect, you might ask for a referral to a sports-oriented nutritionist or dietitian for additional help.

After training questions, nutrition questions are the next most frequently asked by runners. Even the best training program can be derailed by inadequate nutrition, and conversely, even the best nutrition can’t compensate for an inappropriate training plan. The longer the race, the more important nutrition becomes both on and off the road. Just to be clear, I am not a nutritionist or a dietitian, so keep in mind that the advice I give you is from a runner’s perspective only.

The first culprit when things don’t go as planned is always our training plan, so examine your training plan thoroughly and make sure it is appropriate for your current fitness level. Over-training – or inappropriate training– is the most common cause of excessive muscle soreness. Specifically, look at the weekly mileage increases and the prescribed training paces. Weekly mileage increases should be no more than 10 to 20 per cent of your total weekly volume. Long weekend runs should be done at a comfortable pace, meaning you can carry on a conversation while running. Be sure you are not doing long runs too fast. Save your speed training for a shorter run during the week. Are you alternating hard days and easy days? Do you have enough recovery time between workouts? Does your training plan incorporate rest days? You should have at least one day a week completely off for rest and recovery. If your training plan checks out, then the next step is to look at other factors that may be contributing to this condition like nutrition, hydration, stress levels, or lack of sleep.

Consider your run nutrition first; this includes your pre-run, mid-run and post-run nutrition. Then look at your overall daily nutrition. One of the simplest things you can try to reduce muscle soreness is to consume sports drink during your run. When muscle glycogen stores get low, muscles begin breaking down their own protein, which results in making you very sore. By giving your body the fuel it needs, you may be able to reduce some soreness. Staying properly hydrated is also a big concern. Be certain you are drinking plenty of water every day, especially during your runs, as dehydration can cause increased muscle soreness after exercise. You should consume a minimum of 1.8L of water every day and more when exercising in the heat.

One of the biggest mistakes runners make is not eating before a run. It may sound counterintuitive, but especially when long distance training, eating is a necessity. The key is figuring out exactly what to eat that will provide you with the energy you need and not upset your stomach. Our blood sugar levels are at their lowest in the morning because we have not eaten for 6 to 8 hours while we have been asleep. To head right out the door for a morning run on an empty stomach puts runners at risk of winding up with a lackluster workout due to plummeting blood sugar levels plummet and depleted glycogen stores. The solution? Get up early enough to allow yourself time to eat. Yes, this means setting the alarm clock 30 to 45 minutes earlier. You don’t need to eat a lot, but you do want to have something in your stomach before you head out the door. Aim for taking in 850 to 1250 kilojoules. Runner favourites are a banana, an energy bar, toast with peanut butter, half of a bagel, cereal with milk, sports drink, coffee and water.

On long runs or any run that exceeds 60 minutes, take a nutritional supplement with you to replace sugar, kilojoules and electrolytes. By refuelling during the run, you will improve your endurance and performance and reduce the risk of muscle soreness. These supplements are easy to digest and contain easily metabolised carbohydrates and electrolytes. Drink water and sports drink along the way, too. The goal is to keep your blood sugar levels within normal range and avoid blood sugar spikes and falls. Some runners find that taking small amounts of a nutritional supplement more frequently rather than ingesting the entire packet at one time prevents stomach upset and keeps blood sugar levels stable. However, mixing sports drink with run nutrition can be too much sugar, so always wash your gels down with just water. Other run food options include pretzels, crackers, peanut M&Ms, peanut butter crackers, jelly beans or hard candy. Carry these with you in small plastic baggies for easy accessibility. Begin taking your run nutrition at about the 35-minute mark, and then continue ingesting something – sports drink or nutrition and water – every 20 minutes or so for the duration of your run.

Feed your tired muscles as soon as you can after a run. Replenishing your depleted glycogen stores within 20 to 30 minutes is a necessity, especially to reduce muscle soreness. Imagine your fatigued muscles resembling an old, dried-up sponge. As you rehydrate and refuel, they soak up these much-needed nutrients and fluids and soon look like a brand-new pliable sponge! Research indicates that some running injuries may actually be the result of inadequate post-run nutrition. The hard part is that runners often don’t feel like eating for several hours after a strenuous workout. This is where recovery drinks or low-fat chocolate milk can be helpful because they are easy to get down and provide the right blend of protein, carbohydrate and fat for depleted muscles. Ingest a recovery drink or chocolate milk within 20 to 30 minutes after your run and plan on eating a meal combining carbs, protein, and fat as soon as you feel hungry.

For overall nutrition, it’s interesting that you are having trouble meeting your recommended daily requirement of kilojoules and carbohydrates. Getting enough kilojoules and carbs is usually not a problem for most! On the other hand, obtaining adequate iron, vitamins and B12 can be difficult for many runners, especially vegetarian runners. Kilojoules and carbohydrates are extremely important because they provide the energy for running and the fuel for muscular contractions, so a deficiency in these two dietary components is definitely a problem. It’s like expecting your car to keep going when it’s out of fuel. Rice, grains, pastas, breads, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes contain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates should make up 45 to 55 per cent of your daily caloric intake.

Protein is a part of every cell, tissue, and organ in our body. Protein is largely responsible for the repair and restoration of the body, which is of particular importance to a runner since we break down tissue with every workout and then repair it during recovery. Protein performs many other functions, like assisting with carrying oxygen and helping the body fight disease. It also catalyses enzyme reactions, acts as a messenger for protein hormones, and is essential for muscle contractions. Protein helps clot blood, and it provides a small amount of the energy used in long-distance running. Experts estimate that 5 to 15% of our energy needs during exercise come from the breakdown of protein.

Protein should comprise about 15 to 30 per cent of a runner’s daily kilojoule intake. Runners may often fail to take in enough protein to meet the demands of high mileage because of the emphasis placed on carbohydrates for energy. Only recently has research shown that the need for protein in endurance athletes is much higher than previously realised. The number of kilograms you weigh is the number of grams of protein you need each day. Some experts even recommend multiplying your weight in kilograms by 1.5 to meet the demands of distance running. Using this formula, at 45kg, your protein need is estimated to be between 45 and 68 grams each day.

Just getting the adequate amount of protein in our diet is only part of the story. Proteins are made up of 20 different amino acids. Nine of these amino acids cannot be made by our bodies, so they are considered essential, and we must obtain them from our diet. Foods that contain the nine essential amino acids are referred to as complete proteins. An incomplete protein is one that is low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Combining incomplete proteins complement one another, and together they can form a complete protein. For example, all animal proteins are complete proteins. This includes red meat, poultry, eggs, seafood and dairy products. Vegetarian sources of complete proteins include soy products and quinoa. Foods that are incomplete proteins but can be combined to make complete proteins are beans with rice or corn, beans and grains, or beans and nuts. Vegetarians need to be especially diligent about their protein intake to make certain they are consuming adequate amounts of complete protein.

Vitamins are organic substances essential for the normal functioning of body processes. They do not contain energy but they are essential in the metabolism of other nutrients. Vitamins assist with blood clotting, protein synthesis and bone formation. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products like meat, eggs, cheese, milk or yoghurt. Some cereals are vitamin B12-fortified, but you are wise to take it in a supplement form if you are avoiding all animal products.

Minerals are inorganic molecules that serve a variety of functions in the body. Some of these functions include assisting with muscle contraction, the mineralisation of bone, the transmission of nerve impulses, and the carrying of oxygen. Some of the more well-known minerals are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chloride, magnesium and iron. Iron is a big concern. You should have both your haemoglobin and ferritin levels checked. Iron is absorbed from our diet and stored in the body using a protein called ferritin. Ferritin is our iron storage unit; it circulates in the bloodstream and releases iron as needed for the production of red blood cells. Once ferritin is released for the production of red blood cells, it becomes known as haemoglobin. Red blood cells consist primarily of a protein called haemoglobin. The amount of haemoglobin present in our blood stream is important because this is what oxygen binds to and is then carried to the muscles for energy production. When there is not enough haemoglobin present in the bloodstream for oxygen to bind to, adequate oxygen cannot be delivered to working muscles. Your physician will be able to test both your ferritin levels and your haemoglobin. It is important to know your numbers and have them monitored so you can supplement appropriately because too much iron can also be dangerous.

As an athlete, our dietary needs are greater than those of our sedentary counterparts, so we need to pay special attention to our nutrition to be certain we are fuelling our bodies appropriately for the demands we are placing upon it. As a vegetarian athlete, you need to be even more aware of your specific dietary needs. – Susan

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